Research aiming to build a picture of school library provision has found that there are significant variations in access to library spaces, with a leading author calling the findings a ‘social mobility timebomb’. The research was commissioned by the Great School Libraries campaign − a 3 year campaign run by CILIP, the library and information association and the School Library Association (SLA), and carried out by BMG Research. It included a survey which received responses from 1750 schools across England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The results of the survey found that 87 per cent of schools overall reported having access to a designated school library space, but that this dropped to 67 per cent in Wales, and just 57 per cent in Northern Ireland. Further to this, the survey showed that schools with a higher proportion (more than 25 per cent) of pupils eligible for free school meals (FSM) are more than twice as likely to not have a designated school library space on site than schools with the lowest rates of FSM eligibility (less than 10 per cent). Schools who have the highest level of FSM eligibility are also significantly more likely than average to report that they have no digital device provision in the library. 

More than half of the schools that participated in the survey (55 per cent) indicated that their library is open for 6 hours or less daily. However, the staffed hours reported for these libraries were significantly lower. Again, schools with the highest proportion of FSM eligibility reported fewer hours of open access than their counterparts with low FSM eligibility. The researchers also found that Independent schools were nearly twice as likely to have a dedicated budget for their library than non-independent primary and secondary schools (83 per cent to 42 per cent). The survey also found evidence of insecure employment terms, low pay and a lack of investment in continuing professional development (CPD) for dedicated library staff.

Among the recommendations made in the research report is for the Department for Education (DfE) to work with the school library community and educators to implement national school library strategies in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, drawing on the example of the National School Library Strategy in Scotland. It also calls on school leaders to ensure that school librarians and library staff have access to fair employment terms and conditions including job security, ongoing training and fair pay. 

Commenting on the publication of the research, Nick Poole, Chief Executive of CILIP said: ‘We welcome this landmark report as the first comprehensive picture of the state of play in our school libraries. On the one hand, it is a testament to the headteachers, teachers, governors and librarians that value and promote the importance of school libraries for learners and their school. On the other hand, the research paints a picture of inequality of access and opportunity and insecure employment that we cannot accept. The findings highlight the urgency of securing national school library strategies and investment in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, drawing on the example of Scotland.’

Waterstones Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, said ‘This research shows an inequality in library provision that is a social mobility time bomb. Nobody has yet answered this question for me: if a child's parents cannot afford books, if there isn't a library in their school, and they don't have opportunities to visit a public library, how on earth can they become a reader for pleasure?’

The full research report can be found at https://tinyurl.com/yyuchzad and also contains a number of case studies of effective library practice, including one from Woolmer Hill school in Surrey.

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